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Address: 116-118 Quay Street
Ph: (09) 300 5271
It was one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions. The kids' concert had finished early, Marcus and Andrea had organised a babysitter and we needed to eat.
We knew Ebisu didn't take bookings for small groups. So we were in with a chance and headed for the old Union Fish Company building on Quay St, where we landed their last table for four.
Ebisu feels similar to the Hanoi Cafe without the bustle. Interior decoration is minimal: towering high ceilings, great quantities of exposed brick and shiny glass, old, minimally adorned walls and white-clothed dining tables alongside a sleek, super-sophisticated cocktail bar.
There's also a sort of glassed-off veranda, where we sat. And although we felt too far from the action at the beginning, it was great being able to study the menu in relative peace. Ebisu specialises in shared dishes for the table rather than a la carte meals, so we needed to discuss - and get it right.
And, with the help of our waiter, we did. Three of us started with miso soup that set the standard for the rest of the evening. It arrived fragrant with fine-chopped herbs and exciting flavours which lifted Japan's standard soup into five-star territory. Tangy without being bitter, warm without being hot, with a taste surprise in every mouthful, it was absolutely stunning. Soon the rest of our meal began arriving. We'd decided on five entree-style and three main course dishes, plus sides of spinach and eggplant.
First came the spinach, salmon nigiri and soft-shell crab. All three were great. Andrea and I especially loved the spinach, which is quick-cooked then squeezed dry, reheated in sesame oil and served cold. Chewier than my efforts but nuttier and better. And while the crab wasn't quite as crunchy as they do them in Noosa, it was the best I've had here. Meanwhile the nigiri was outstanding. The salmon had been seared on one side, giving it an interesting texture and a deliciously smoky taste.
Next came the pork belly, served in smallish squares, cooked in some indescribably delectable Japanese spices until the meat was soft as butter. I couldn't tell where the meat stopped and the fat ended, which meant I scooted through my share and almost went into battle for the last piece. Best of all was the mixed sashimi, with amazing amounts of expertly prepared and seasoned raw fish, salmon plus slices of scallop, which tasted like the sea - only better.
Then there was the eggplant with a sweet miso glaze which, again, was the best version I've eaten, the fried chicken which was an enormous bowl and took this humble flesh to new heights and more. To finish we shared a bowl of tiny, exquisitely light, hot apple doughnuts with cream and chocolate sauce and a selection of icecreams topped by a marvellous, salty, macadamia nut.
Only when we discussed the meal later did we realise we'd skipped the rice entirely and were still satisfied.
Ebisu is now my favourite Auckland restaurant. We ate like kings for around $60-odd each, including drinks. The table was beautifully set and arranged. Everything came in beautiful, sometimes hand-made, Japanese pottery bowls and plates. We were looked after by a team of friendly and efficient waiters. The only dud note was the women's loos which are no better than you'd find at Auckland Airport with, unforgiveably, no paper in one.
Rating out of 10
Our meal: $243 for three miso soups, five small dishes, three large dishes, two vegetable dishes/sides, two desserts, sake to share, a beer and a glass of wine.
Wine list: All you'd expect from a restaurant/cocktail bar plus a range of Japanese sake and beer.
Verdict: Japanese cuisine with a flavour kick that lifts it way out of the ordinary, at reasonable prices.